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Wisconsin Basketball Has 7 MUST-WIN Games on its Schedule



Wisconsin Badgers Basketball head coach Greg Gard
Jan 3, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Greg Gard talks with his players during a timeout against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the second half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Kayla Wolf-USA TODAY Sports

Two seasons ago, Wisconsin basketball had a knack for winning close games. In the 2021-22 season, the Wisconsin Badgers won eight games by four or fewer points and lost only one game decided within that margin. To start the 2022-23 campaign, UW regressed slightly by going 4-2 in games decided by four or fewer points. A regression, to be sure, but not a disastrous one.

Whatever magic Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard used to win so many close games did finally wear off, however. Following that 4-2 start in close games and 11-2 start overall, UW finished the regular season by going 2-5 in close games and 6-11 overall. Finding ways to lose close, winnable games ultimately dashed Wisconsin’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.

Wisconsin Badgers basketball head coach Greg Gard

Mar 17, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Greg Gard talks with the media during a practice day before the first round of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

To make it back to the Big Dance, the Wisconsin Badgers simply must find ways to win – including seven games UW simply cannot afford to lose.

Here at BadgerNotes, we are counting down the days to college basketball season and analyzing the road ahead for UW. When Wisconsin tips off against the Arkansas Red Wolves on Monday, November 6th (just seven days from now), be ready by catching up on all things Badgers with our season preview series:

Want to See the Wisconsin Badgers Back in the NCAA Tournament? Start by Not Losing These Seven Games

Calling something a “must-win” is an overused sports trope I hate. It does, however, make for clickable content. The world will not end if Wisconsin fails to win one of these even games. Still, though, it would make getting to the NCAA Tournament much more difficult than it needs to be.

Wisconsin Badgers Basketball

Oct 10, 2023; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Wisconsin Basgers players Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit and Connor Essegian speak to the media during the Big Ten basketball media days at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Gard scheduled aggressively in the non-conference for his team. It is something, as a fan of the Badgers and college basketball overall, that I really enjoy. It is also something that means losses are inevitable. Wisconsin must avoid having too many losses and definitely has to avoid bad losses.

Wisconsin Basketball, Please Do Not Lose to Whatever These Teams Are

It is not all top fifteen opponents on Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule. The slate also includes five games against non-power conference teams. Those games are against Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference, Robert Morris (Horizon League), Western Illinois (Ohio Valley), Jacksonville State (Conference USA), and Chicago State (Independent).

Last season, the Wisconsin Badgers were all but begging to be upset against an opponent like this. Green Bay was among the very worst teams in college basketball last season – winning only three games. Despite that, UW let it hang around in a game the Badgers led by a mere two possessions with fewer than five minutes remaining in the second half. Lehigh, a similarly unimpressive team, came to the Kohl Center last season and was leading as late as the 13:31 mark of the second half.

Wisconsin basketball

Dec 15, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Connor Essegian (3) and Wisconsin Badgers guard Chucky Hepburn (23) talk as they approach the huddle during a timeout during the second half against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Kayla Wolf-USA TODAY Sports

These uninspiring showings against lesser competition are becoming a trend for Wisconsin. Two seasons ago, UW hosted Nicholls State and Illinois State in games the Badgers won by only three and four points, respectively. If Gard does not fix this lackluster performance issue, his team is eventually going to get picked off in one of these buy-game matchups.

The Wisconsin Badgers Cannot Afford to Lose to the Worst Team in the Big Ten

Admittedly, not all mid to low-major programs are created equal. Arkansas State features a pair of guards, Terrance Ford Jr. and Freddy Hicks, selected to the Preseason All-Sun Belt Third Team. Jacksonville State will have a tough road to hoe in its first season in Conference USA, but it is only two seasons removed from finishing atop the Atlantic Sun Conference. Robert Morris, Western Illinois, and Chicago State will probably be terrible, but not all non-power programs are!

The same is, of course, true for the inverse. There are mediocre teams in the power conferences. There are pretty bad teams in the Big Ten. Among those teams are the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Wisconsin basketball guard Jordan Davis

Jan 3, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Jordan Davis (2) passes the ball against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Kayla Wolf-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota will undoubtedly be the worst team in the Big Ten this season. The Golden Gophers lost two of their three leading scorers to the transfer portal. In their place, head coach Ben Johnson will need significant contributions from a pair of guards transferring up: Mike Mitchell Jr. from Pepperdine and Elijah Hawkins from Howard.

The Gophers lost a lot of production, and Johnson’s plan to replace it is shaky at best. He lost two of his best players to other power conference teams and replaced them with mid-major and low-major transfers. Minnesota could end up being a very bad team and a very bad loss for a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Wisconsin Basketball Must Defeat its Weakened Foil: the Virginia Cavaliers

Wisconsin Badgers fans have always looked East as a “what-if” toward Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. The former Wisconsin basketball assistant coach led the Cavaliers to the 2019 national championship and has built a UVA program in the image of his father, Dick Bennett’s, teams at UW.

The younger Bennett’s success has made him an easy-to-name coaching replacement target for the “Fire Gard” crowd. Although I know trying to quiet that crowd is a futile effort, Wisconsin defeating the Cavaliers in the Fort Myers Tip-Off is a good start.

Wisconsin Football Fans Hopeful Despite Loss to Ohio State

Virginia found itself in the “receiving votes” portion of the preseason AP Top 25. Its inclusion there, however, might be based on little more than the reputation Bennett has made for himself. Frankly, this is one of the least impressive teams Bennett has assembled in a while.

The Cavaliers enter this season after losing its three top scorers and four of its five from the 2022-23 campaign. Bennett’s program, which is built on experience, is suddenly lacking players with that experience at the Atlantic Coast Conference level.

I see this Virginia season going one of two ways. Either Bennett will do what he seemingly always does and get his roster to finish top-four in a weakened ACC (and give Wisconsin the opportunity for a quality win), or the inexperienced roster fails to come together and misses the NCAA Tournament (and the Badgers risk taking an early bad loss).

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BadgerNotes' resident college basketball sicko, Kedrick Stumbris covers Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball and women's hockey teams unlike anyone else. He received his B.A. with economics and political science majors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 and has had his work published on Bleacher Report and Verbal Commits.